Rocking the Bottom


I’ve seen it, several times,
although much later in my own life.
It’s in the eyes
of men who
all had owned real estate
on the hopeless end
of Rockbottom Drive.

I didn’t want to find out
for myself what
was behind that look, though.
My dad made sure, as
He let me visit the address once.

Continue reading “Rocking the Bottom”

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Thoughts On Lies


harlanforbio

Harlan Coben is one of my favorite mystery writers. The genre is all about sorting out lies from the truth, some really hard, basic accounting and accountability; life and death accounting rules. That’s part of what I love about it.

“There’s always a price you pay when you lie. Once you introduce a lie into a relationship, even for the best of intentions, it is always there. Whenever you’re with that person again, that lie is in the room too. It sits on your shoulder. Good lie or bad lie, it’s in the room with you forever now. It’s your constant companion.” 

― Harlan CobenSeconds Away

 

“The ugliest truth, in the end, was still better than the prettiest of lies.” 
― Harlan Coben

Running Girl: “Fingers” (excerpt)


  1. “Mohana Das”

  2. “Captured”

  3. “Dream Girl”

  4. “Attack in the Family Room”

  5. “Fingers”

_______________________
Fingers

Her name was Rose Tyler, like the 10th Dr. Who’s  traveling companion.

This Rose was from New Jersey, though, and was part owner of a bar and restaurant in the old mill. She moved to Mossy Creek from a working-class neighborhood after a bad marriage ended. She’d worked as a translator at the UN. No one could learn more than that. Several had tried.

She had the air of someone who had been let down too many times. While she was friendly and exchanged sometimes vulgar banter with regulars, her eyes were always a little watchful and wary behind the smile.

Ted read her that life had not been one that lent itself to easy fantasies. More than one half-drunk male customer had learned some choice New Jersey words, too, if he laid a hand on her.

He met her the first day he was in town, listened to her conversation and quickly placed her origins and attitude. He kept his distance at first, but found that he ended up there a few nights a week after working on the house. He didn’t share much of himself, either, and resisted enough of the ways the locals had of prying without being rude. He and Rose had both been let down too many times, and each had learned to value their privacy. They circled one another, closer and closer, without words.

After a week of almost daily visits and neutral pleasantries, though, he hurried to lunch more than he used to, and she looked up and smiled when he came in, a little more than was really required. That made him happy.

On a sleepy late April afternoon, he was later than usual, held up by an argument with a painter about an estimate that had ballooned out of control. By the time he got to the Mill, he was hungry and grumpy.

The parking lot was empty, as was the bar. Rose had her back to the door and was cleaning glasses, listening to music on a stereo and obviously lost in some private thoughts. Ted recognized the song she had on, one of his favorites, “Suite Judy Blue Eyes,” by Crosby, Stills and Nash. The lyrics at the beginning were wafting around the dark corners of the old room:

It’s getting to the point
Where I’m no fun anymore
I am sorry
Sometimes it hurts so badly
I must cry out loud
I am lonely
I am yours, you are mine
You are what you are
You make it hard….

She was somewhere in her early 40s, but was fit and curvy, and her partner in the business was the chef. Ted discovered eventually, and to his delight, that Ronald already was involved with Elliot. Elliot lived in Pittsburgh where he was a TV producer, and commuted on weekends.

Rose wore a simple black skirt that flattered her hips and legs, and a starched white blouse. Her sandy-blond hair was tied up in a bun and held with a carved wooden pin, but some hair escaped confinement in a borderline wild way that he thought was charming. As she turned to put the wine glasses into the overhead rack, she turned slightly and her breasts strained against the fabric in a way that he approved of completely. He noticed she wore a plain gold chain necklace with a small cross that rested in some cleavage that was showing. He noticed that more this day because the second button was undone more than usual. He smiled to himself. Not that he hadn’t noticed her before, but that day he realized that his interest in her was something that needed to be admitted. He realized that he had stopped just inside the bar’s door and was staring, just as she caught him out of the corner of her eye, saw how he was looking at her and slowly lowered her arm smiled.

At that moment, the song slid into the next to the last stanza —

What have you got to lose?
Chestnut brown canary
Ruby throated sparrow
Sing the song, don’t be long
Thrill me to the marrow
Voices of the angels, ring around the moonlight
Asking me, said she so free
How can you catch the sparrow?
Lacy, lilting, leery, losing love, lamenting
Change my life, make it right
Be my lady

They both laughed at the same time. And then did what two people do at times like that: they pretended the moment hadn’t happened.

“Hey there,” she said, a little too brightly, “I was wondering if you were going to be in today. The usual? ”
Ted tried to move, but only managed to bump into one of the chairs at a table near the door, nearly knocking it over. He fumbled it back upright, feeling as clumsy as a teenager at his first prom. Rose seemed amused.
“Um, yes. Let’s start with an Ayinger. And could you ask Ronald to whip up a corned beef platter?”
“Of course,” she said, slight color tinging her cheeks, fumbling a bit herself as she put the order through on the computer to the kitchen and filled a frosted glass with the Bavarian wheat beer.

She slid the beer across the counter and leaned in against the inside edge with both hands.
He caught a whiff of her perfume and noticed a strand of hair dangling by one ear. It suddenly got a little harder to breathe.

“How’s the work on the house going? Still fighting with Harold about the painting bill?”
Nothing was secret in this town, especially if you were a barber or bartender.

“Harold’s been sniffing paint fumes too long,” Ted said with a wry smile, gratefully sipping the ice-cold liquid and wiping the foam from his lip with the napkin she’d put by the glass. “But I think we’ve finally got it settled. That’s what I was just finishing up. He says he’ll be done with the upstairs bedrooms in a couple of days, and that’s about all there is to do. He’d better be, too. The decorators are coming Monday to hang curtains, put the carpets down and make it all pretty and such.”

“I’ve been waiting to get an invitation to see the place, and I’m tired of waiting,” Rose said. “When can I come over and see if I approve?”

He was very aware of her proximity, and his hands felt like he was wearing boxing gloves. Picking that sandwich up was going to be a problem.

“Harold just had his deadline moved up. Give me two days. How does Thursday night sound, around 7 for a dinner? I’ve learned to be a pretty good chef since living alone.”

“I’d love that. But it’ll have to be a little later, after nine. Ronald closes up Thursdays for me anyway. Would that work? I’ll bring the wine. We just got a very nice Sirrah in from California, and I’ve been wanting to try it out.”

They talked for a bit about a wine and cheese tasting in the restaurant later in the week, and about the house. The feeling between then had subtly shifted, and both were aware of it and felt comfortable, and excited, although neither said it out loud.

Other customers came in and they broke off the conversation while she took their orders. He ate his sandwich. The dim, aged stone and wood atmosphere of the bar was comforting. It had been absorbing such moments for nearly 200 years.
Another old song was playing, a quiet instrumental he couldn’t quite place. He was tired, but found he was thinking about Thursday night with anticipation. He leaned on the bar and watched the bubbles rise in the liquid in his glass, bits of foam clinging to the sides. He took another sip.

He felt Rose’s presence return from the other side of the bar, which was in a “U” shape around a central wooden support beam and cash register. His awareness of her was of a rustling sound of cotton, a sensation of heat and a fragrance both subtle and disturbing. Rose was looking at him with an expression he hadn’t seen in a while. A nice one, one that hit him right in the male part of his brain. She was resting her hands on the bar, and moved one hand with a bar towel in a slow, back and forth motion. The surface was already spotless.

Her fingers drew his eyes for some reason. Part of his brain registered mild surprise at that. His heart beat a tune he hadn’t heard in a while. There were many things about Rose that he liked looking at, but what he looked at just then were her fingers. He was a connoisseur of such things.

It’s just like you can never mistake a girl’s knees for a woman’s. Young girls might have perfect skin and no signs of wear and tear, but experience in life is underrated when it comes to beauty. For one thing, there’s the confidence. That’s a real plus. That and no giggling.

And their knees aren’t as nice as a woman’s. These things matter to a man after a while, if he’s paying attention.

Rose’s fingers….  were not pudgy, young-girl fingers, but …womanly. The kind that comes after living a little. The kind that know what to touch, when to touch, and how long to touch; when to grab and hold on, and when to let go. Long and slender, with well-trimmed nails with a clear coating. Languid, graceful, with the beginnings of a few wrinkles. Hands that had seen hard work, but would just as naturally cradle a baby or slide beer across a bar.

Details matter.

All of this flashed through his fatigue and beer-mellowed mind in less than two seconds. Her fingers absolutely mesmerized him.

God, the raunchy truth of it was that he loved women and women’s bodies. The whole and the parts. They fascinated him. And it had been a long time since he’d thought much about that. Too long.

He reached out without thinking about it and took her hands up in his, and held them.

“You have lovely hands,” he said.

Wow, he thought. How original.

She appreciated the impulse, if not the dumb delivery. She laughed and flushed. That was a good sign, wasn’t it?
She stammered a little and managed an “oh, they’re so dry”. But she didn’t pull away. After a second’s hesitation, she rubbed her fingertips on the palm of his hand and moved her hands inside his, and then clasped his hands with an intensity that surprised him and stole any words he might have uttered.

“I’m feeling warm,” she said with a nervous laugh, and looked a little unsure. But in a flash, her body was still and her large, dark brown eyes looked right into his with a serious, but twinkly look. He had the giddy feeling that he was falling into them.

“I wonder why?,” she said.

“I’m feeling pretty warm myself.”

He actually blushed, probably for the first time since he bumped into Linda Vogel’s new boobs in the sixth grade. But he wasn’t in the sixth grade any longer, he knew what he wanted to do and, what’s more, that Rose wanted the same thing. The realization sent an electric shock clear down to his toes. She smiled a little at the corners of her mouth and tilted her head to the side a little, watching him.

Without quite realizing he was doing it, he found his fingertip gliding over the fine hair of her forearm, on the way to other things. He didn’t care who else was in the bar, even though they were alone. The feeling of her was electric to his fingers and he was aware of every detail. She leaned closer, her eyes closing a little.

Then the phone rang. Her eyes opened slowly, regretfully and she gave a little shrug that said ‘what are you going to do?’.

No more for now.

But soon. Soon.

They smiled at each other knowingly as she answered the phone, which was right behind the bar next to the cash register. He softly kissed the back of her free hand, which he still held, gathered his things and stood to go. Her throat flushed and her eyes darkened and softened. She stopped listening to whoever was on the phone.

At the door, he paused, half-turned and looked back, and pantomimed that he would call. She nodded and her smile lit up her face. Her eyes lingered on him, shining, but a little troubled, too. Then they cleared. Her lips mouthed the word “Yes.”

Outside, he felt like a schoolboy again, lighter than air. The sun was a little brighter and the birds were singing. He could feel the stock market rise, except it wasn’t the stock market.

Ah, life, he thought, giddy as a 17-year-old after his first kiss. What a grand thing it is.

‘Running Girl’ Ch. 4 excerpt: “Attack in the Family Room”


NOTE: I’m doing some heavy revisions on this and the other excerpts. This scene will remain fundamentally the same, but I’m seeing Eleanor in this version now as a little too much the bimbo. She’s not that at all, really. So I’m removing the more graphic sexual overtones, as i don’t want that part to give the wrong impression about her.

Ch. 1: “Mohana Das”

“Captured”
“Dream Girl”
“Attack in the Family Room”
“Fingers”

‘Aegroto dum anima est, spes est.’ : “Where there is life, there is hope.”

Her captor moved Eleanor, half-walking, half-flying, from the bedroom to the family room and threw her face-down on the couch. Her head throbbed and she almost passed out again. She turned her head a bit to see him from the corner of her eye. His strength made any resistance pointless.

He pulled a pistol from under his jacket — probably a holster in the back on his belt, she noted automatically. All she really wanted to do was let the blackness overwhelm her, to make the pain stop.

But the training, and the way her brain was wired, meant she couldn’t NOT notice these things. They used to call it a photographic memory. It was just a thing she was able to do, like breathing. Noted and filed: A black Beretta 92. Sixteen rounds, if he had one in the chamber, she thought automatically. Not everyone did, for fear of accidentally shooting oneself in the butt or leg. So, 15. Probably.

“Don’t move,” he ordered. From a side pocket of his jacket, he pulled out plastic zip ties. He cinched one too tightly, around her ankles.

“Put your hands behind your back,” he barked. She slowly complied and he cinched another zip tie around wrists. Her knees were on the floor now and her ankles were secure and he had the gun on her.

“Turn over,” he said.

She rolled to her right with difficulty and slid her rump onto the carpeted floor, her legs bent to the side. It was uncomfortable, but she could stand it. She shifted until her hands were in a less painful position and got her first good look at him.

The guy was about six feet away, feet apart for balance, up on the balls of his feet. He was 6’2” or 6’3” and around 235 to 240 pounds, she guessed. His shoulders were broad, but he stood with a slight hunch, the parts of his face she could see through the mask felt as though it was  crimped in a perpetual bad mood. The eyes were brown and sunken in rolls of skin, and at first seemed to miss nothing. But then they’d occasionally lose focus and dart around.

Weird. She could feel the anger and sadism in him. That gave her an idea.

He was strong, she knew that, but had gotten a little thick around the middle. His legs were short and the muscles of the thighs were tight inside his cargo pants. He wore the same black outfit as the other man: ski mask, black military style winter parka with no markings, black pants and laced black military-style boots. Gloves. Thin leather ones. He carried himself like he’d had military training, but had let himself go a little.

She looked again at the eyes — brown, flecks of gold, a little crazy — and saw that he was watching her.
Stepping closer, he used the barrel of the pistol to flip both sides of her robe open, uncovering the full length of her legs. He let out a little sigh.

“Nice. Very nice.” he said.

OK, so this was how it was going to go.

Guys had been hitting on her since she was 11. They usually weren’t pointing guns at her, but that was just a minor detail at this point. She knew the urges in those eyes very well. She’d never been raped before, though, unless you counted that one time in college when she’d gotten too drunk at a party and… well, she just wasn’t eager to find out what the real thing was like.
She looked down, put a look of fear on her face, then slowly looked back up. “I hope this looks scared,” she thought.
“Don’t hurt me, please,” she said. “I don’t know why you’re here”—which was true—“Let me go, and I won’t say anything.”

Fat chance of that, she thought, but it was worth a shot.

“Shut up,” he said. “You’re not going anywhere.”

But he kept looking at the parts of her peeking out from the silk robe. The fabric didn’t leave a lot to the imagination, either. She leaned forward a little and her robe fell open more.

His eyes widened involuntarily.

“Gotcha, pervert” she thought to herself.

“Just don’t hurt me,” she said out loud, wriggling a little for effect.

“I’ll do whatever I want, sweetheart,” he said, licking his lips involuntarily, red spots starting to bloom in each cheek.

“I—I know,” she stammered. “I already know that. You’re strong, I’m tied up and you have the gun. You can do what you want and I can’t stop you. But…” she hesitated.

“But what?” he asked, despite himself.

“But it doesn’t have to be bad for me, does it? I mean, you like me…I can see it. I would rather cooperate than get hurt any more. I don’t have to draw a map, do I? Do what you want, and then let me go, OK?”

He just snorted.

“I don’t need your cooperation. I think I’ll just take what I want from you. And we’ll still do what we came here for. I know about you, Eleanor…. Or whatever your name is. Ex-water-rat, right? You’re just a Navy whore, trying to do a man’s job. So drop the coy young thing act. It ain’t gonna work.”

“Shit!” she thought, again, then took a shot in the dark. This guy had a certain feeling about him. Maybe it was the body language.
“Ah. A jar-head,” she said, leaning back a bit and trying to project as much arrogant contempt as possible. “Thought I smelled the stupid. You reek of it.”

The age-old insult of Navy to Marine hit home. He tensed and his beady eyes narrowed some more.

Bingo. Now to work this a little.

She was the daughter and sister of Marines, and had heard the stories all her life. They thought Navy officers were stuck up preppies, and saw red when talked down to. She joined the Navy, over their half-hearted objections, because there were more opportunities for women at the time. So, they conducted a little training and orientation program of their own before she left for Annapolis. Where to go, and not go; who to avoid; when to fight and when to run; and how to fight dirty when cornered.

They also taught her to take the initiative, especially when in a weak position. Surprise and aggression, especially when coming from a woman and the adversary is male, were always advantages. A bold move can change your luck.

She sighed a little to herself, knowing what was coming next.

“This is going to get ugly, father of mine,” she said in her head.

“Let’s hope you’ve learned how to take a punch, daughter of mine” she heard her father’s voice say in her ear.

“I’m about to find out,” she answered. “I’ll get back to you.”

She straightened up and pinned Brown Eyes with The Look, the command look of superiority and dismissal: me big shot officer, you toe-jam-moron-cannon-fodder inferior, it said.

“Yeah, I was in the Navy. But even as a woman I’m a better man than you, Jar Head. Did your partner dress you today, or have you learned how to do that yourself? I like your style sense, though. Very feminine. ”

She never saw him move, just had the impression of a blur. He grunted once and a vicious blow exploded against the side of her head and she fell over again. She passed out for a time, but woke as his arm circled her belly and he lifted her body roughly onto the couch, her knees on the carpet and face mashed into the cushion. He flipped the hem of her robe up above her waist and ripped her panties off.

She heard him loosen his belt buckle and pull his zipper down and forced one last insult out. Or thought she did. It seemed like she was in a dream again. She turned her head and sneered out of the side of her mouth, every word causing pain stabs in her head.
“So it’s rape now? Christ. Fine. Get it over with so I can compare you with a real man. If I can even feel it. But the least you could do is loosen my ankles. I won’t put up a fight, but at least do that,” she snapped, trying to sound bored and contemptuous at the same time.

He paused. She could almost feel him shrug and then he cut the thin plastic strip from her ankles. She gritted her teeth and tamped down the shame. Just get through it. Stay alive. Get loose. Escape. And maybe kill this guy. That would be a bonus.

He kicked her knees apart with his foot, the soles of his boots smacking the bones. More pain. His aroused breathing was loud. She steeled herself for the next pain, reminding herself that it really wasn’t a big deal, being raped. She’d get over it. It would be just like the gyno exam, without the fun parts. She was on the pill, so wouldn’t get pregnant.

“Any help here, father of mine?”

“Where there’s life, there’s hope, daughter of mine. Stay alive. Whatever you have to do, stay alive.”

This raced through her mind, just ahead of the fear. She was in charge. She was no victim. At least she would stay alive a little longer. She briefly imagined the look on Brown Eyes’ face when she cinched his balls with one of those zip ties. Sheep farmers used rubber bands to castrate ram lambs. Seemed appropriate to see how it worked on a grown man, she mused, consciously thinking of anything other than what he was about to do to her.

The voice of the other man yelled from the bedroom.

“Hey, what’s taking so long out there? Get your ass back in here. She’ll keep.”

“Goddammit!” Brown Eyes growled through clenched teeth. “Goddammit!” His hand was on her hip, he was up against her and she felt his hardness and his body trembling.

He hesitated, fumbled with his pants and belt then cursed again. He was afraid of the other man, that much was clear. He put another plastic handcuff strip around her ankles, but she held her feet as far apart as possible and he wasn’t careful. There was some slack this time. He thrust his hand between her legs and grabbed her there roughly and squeezed hard. Pain shot up through her stomach.

She rolled over and sat on the floor again, ears cocked intently until she heard the voices in the bedroom. They were far enough away that she couldn’t make out all of the words, but soon she heard Henry’s voice raised in fear and there was the wet, thwunk of fist striking flesh. Henry grunted loudly followed by the sound of retching.
Henry. He was a crooked banker and twisted in some other ways that repelled her, but these guys were seriously evil. He had no chance.

As the sounds of angry questions, hitting and sobs and grunts continued from the bedroom, she got her feet under her enough to leverage herself erect. Listening for a moment and hearing no one coming, she hopped tentatively to the end of the couch, leaning against it for support. With a little work, she managed to slip one foot and then the other out of the restraint. She stopped to listen and then hurried five feet across the open tile to the kitchen. One foot was nearly asleep and tingling, and she nearly fell, her wrists were still tied behind her, and she couldn’t stop the fall. The counter corner’s point jabbed her hip hard enough to make her clamp her jaws to keep a cry of pain from escaping. She worked her way around to the drawer with the knives.

Opening it as quietly as she could, she backed up to it and clawed fingers around until she felt the handle of a knife near the front. She flipped the blade vertical and quickly sawed through the plastic strip holding her wrists. She stopped again to listen to see if she’d attracted any attention, rubbing feeling back into her hands as she did so, but the voices from the bedroom continued. Eleanor stepped to another drawer, holding the knife pointed in the direction of the bedroom, and grabbed the spare keys for the SUV. Then she saw the Sig sitting on the counter where she’d left it, dropped the knife and pulled the gun out of it’s holster.

She heard Henry’s voice rise to a scream, cut off abruptly by the unmistakable sharp hiss of a silencer. Then another shot.

The short, unhappy life of Henry Bouchier had ended, just like that.

They would come for her next.

Time to go.

She sprinted on bare feet across the family room, through the mud room and into the garage. She reached the SUV in three strides and opened the weapons bag she’d put under the driver’s seat. She pulled out one of the Glocks, checked that it was loaded and pulled the slide to put a round in the chamber.

She closed the door softly, locked all doors with the remote on the keychain, tucked the Sig in the robe’s left pocket, leapt to an outside door beside the overhead garage door and opened it. A gust of cold air swirled in with a cloud of fir needles and dead leaves.
The dry ground wouldn’t show tracks but they might think she’d gone that way. A trackless forest of fir trees was across the road, too. Glancing quickly outside to make sure one of the men wasn’t coming on her flank, she turned and headed to an area next to some open metal shelving on an inside wall of the garage.

Pushing aside a calendar hanging from a hook, she pressed a small button that looked like a pine knot. A soft click sounded and a panel in the wall popped open an inch. The edges of the opening matched the lines of the pine paneling that covered that wall, and when closed were invisible from the outside. It had taken her the better part of an hour to find it earlier, and even with the help of the blueprints, she’d missed the cleverly disguised button twice before she saw it.

The bottom of the compartment was two feet from the floor, its top less than four feet above that. It extended left of the opening, about three feet wide and too short to stand up in. But, it was large enough to hold two or three large suitcases—or a federal agent, if she doubled her knees up to her chin and backed in, squeezing her body in tight.

She hopped on her butt into the opening scooted back until she could pull her legs and feet in and gather in her robe. She realized that there was nothing on the inside to use to pull the door shut at first, and began to panic. Then, frantically scanning around the edges, she saw a screw head sticking out a half-inch, about halfway up the door’s outer edge. She pulled the door shut with just two fingernails clutching the screw and gratefully heard the latch click just as her attacker’s angry voice boomed a foot away, outside.

“Come to Papa!”

She heard the sounds of violent searching in the garage, doors opening and slamming, objects crashing to the floor, cursing.

Something heavy slammed against the door of the compartment. She raised the gun in the dark and held it steady where she pictured his head would be— just in case the latch opened.  She had a vision of the perplexed expression he would have on his face when she put a small round hole into the exact center of his forehead.

She rested arms on knees, both hands holding the gun steady at the height she thought would be about right, took a deep, shuddering breath or two to calm her heart and waited.

One corner of her mouth twitched upward, and she waited in the darkness.

Running Girl Ch. 1 Excerpt: “Mohana Das”


This is another bit from the book, “Running Girl,” introducing the assassin Mohana Das. She plays a recurring role.

  1. “Mohana Das”

  2. “Captured”
  3. “Dream Girl”
  4. “Attack in the Family Room”
  5. “Fingers”
  6. A Little About Rose
  7. The Next Morning
  8. “What will be, Shall Be”
  9. “To the Death”_______________________________

Mohana Das

The brutal sun churned Karachi’s open sewers, diesel fumes, rotting trash, bubbling asphalt and smoke from a million charcoal cooking fires into a exotic, noxious stew that spread 50 miles downwind, into the great Sind Desert. The monsoon season was brewing in the warming waters of the Arabian Sea. It was only mid-morning, but thermometers shimmered. They could hit 115F by early afternoon.

The city would bake like a rock on a grill, day after day, until the monsoons brought drenching rain that could drown a child, bring insane winds and monstrous, otherworldly clouds. For a while, this was better than the heat. It filled reservoirs, flooded rice and wheat fields, refilled the aquifers, ran in sheets from the mountains to flush new life into rivers, flushing the filth of the city out to sea. They also brought misery and death with drownings and malaria and cholera when slum sewage was flushed into hovels of the destitute, of whom there were millions.

In April, though, from early morning through the muezzin’s call to evening prayer, nothing moved outside by choice unless driven by greed or hunger or bad intent. Only the insane or the criminal or the desperate slipped from shadow to shadow when Sol hurled death onto the unprotected below. But when the he wearied of the game and moved away over the edge of the ocean in the west and onshore breezes carried cooler, saltier air over the city, the city’s millions emerged to celebrate. Cafes filled with the sounds of jangled chatter and shouts of greeting, of  street vendors singing of fresh vegetables for sale, playing children and all the complicated noise of  life in all of its joy and brutality.

A man and a woman made love in a darkened bedroom. A window air conditioning unit rattled softly. The woman straddled him, hands on either side of his head and pumped her hips faster and faster with him inside. Her café au lait skin glowed with a light sweat from the exertion, small breasts swaying, nipples hard. The man, flushed and breathing loudly, grabbed a breast and squeezed it roughly. She didn’t seem to notice except for eyes that flashed briefly in anger at the sudden pain, a look he did not see.

She finished with short whimpers, sighs and finally a long, shuddering moan. After a pause with closed eyes and mouth slightly opened and smiling, she lowered herself  and lay still. He pushed himself into her hard a few more times and she tensed again to receive him, ignoring his grunting, looking bored. After a moment, she rolled off. He turned away with no more notice of her and was almost instantly asleep.

Mohana Das’ black eyes flicked with contempt and frank appraisal, even as a small smile played across her lips. She sat up and straightened the silk scarf that was wrapped tightly around her short-cropped hair. Then, utterly still, she watched him until she was sure he was asleep. Slipping slender legs over the side of the bed, she moved into the shower to bathe his smell away and flush all traces of him down the drain.

Upon return, still naked and damp, she pulled a long, thin blade of black carbon steel in its leather sheath from hiding under the bed. A rush of heat flashed down her abdomen and up to her breasts, as it always did at moments like this. She closed her eyes and relished the tremor of a second orgasm, feeling her legs go weak for a moment.

The blade, honed so finely that the edge reflected no light, resembled a long, deadly letter opener. Tiny parallel lines were etched down the middle, forming a channel for lubricating fluids. The raised metal sides were polished to a mirror finish. But the true genius of it was the purity of the edges and the hypodermic tip. A custom-made Rosewood grip, inlayed with a cat’s head made of ivory, nestled perfectly in the palm of her hand.

It was the creature of a Japanese master. His handiwork was known only to a small and exclusive clientele willing to pay the price of a modest house for such a weapon. It was said he worked on only one blade at a time, and sometimes took weeks to complete it. He didn’t take orders, so much as listen to a visitor and decide whether he felt the person was worthy of perfection. Das had sat with him daily for two weeks, sharing tea and silences, the first time. She waited on his judgement, willing herself to utter calm and acceptance. Then one day, he handed the blade he’d been working on to her, along with a custom scabbard.

A year later, she returned, with the same result. And again a third year.

The master’s wizened old wife waited in the outer room of the house, bowing as Das left. She took the cash Das offered with many mutual bows and smiles, tucking it quickly away in the folds of her kimono.

One blade was hidden in London. The third was her gift to someone who had trained her, loved her and, finally, betrayed her.

Das gently pulled the sheet down from her bedmate’s neck, looking with detachment at the structure of his spinal bones. He stirred in his sleep and his hand reached blindly for her bare thigh. She moved his hand away with a shushing sound, and murmured ‘No. Later.” She waited motionless a few minutes until his breathing slowed.

She finally moved one finger until it barely rested on his skin. The other hand positioned the point of the blade in the slight hollow between the bones, palm on the rounded silver inlay of the handle. She pushed it in, the movement of the blade barely perceptible as it slipped though his skin and ligaments as though moving through damp gauze, and cut the spinal chord between the 3rd and 4th cervical vertebrae. He woke, but too late. A quick flick of her wrist killed all motor control below that point and stopped his diaphragm. His brain would die quickly, starved of oxygen. He was paralyzed and powerless, but aware he was dying, only able to stare at the wall. He could hear her behind him, but was paralyzed and bewildered. His eyes darted wildly and his mouth made soundless screams.

She examined her work. There was very little blood, just seepage from the sliver of a wound. With any luck, he would not be found for days. The more time zones between her and this spot the better. It wasn’t absolutely necessary, but professional caution was the rule. Disappearance without leaving a trace was one of her specialties.

But she could take a moment. She slid to the floor and moved languidly around the bed where he could see her. She stood and watched without expression as his eyes flickered around in fear, slowly clouded and became still as his worthless spirit floated away.

She washed and dried the blade and slipped it into its sheath.

She glanced around and with quick, practiced movements, wiped down every surface she had touched with a hand towel. She switched off the air conditioner and sealed the windows tight, knowing the aggressive heat of April would soon turn this room into an oven and speed the decomposition of the man’s body, obscuring what few clues she’d left. Not that the police in this slum had the tools or competence or even interest in solving this crime, of course.

The man in the bed was a smalltime crook and occasional drug dealer, smuggler and pimp who lived on the underbelly of society. In the complicated world of Karachi’s poor neighborhoods— which is to say, most of them— he also dealt stolen weapons to whomever had the cash. He didn’t care what they did with them. Unfortunately, he had cheated the wrong person, a person with connections— the details were not her concern. Word had been sent through a cutout that her services were needed.

In short, she knew the police would not investigate this man’s passing very enthusiastically. His death simply removed one more vermin from the streets, and any hint that his exit was expedited by powerful people would further discourage inquiry.

Besides, the same Hawala bosses that had hired her also paid bribes which purchased official blindness. It was a very efficient system, if corrupt. If you were the one with the cash.

Her brief passage through this man’s life, for all practical purposes, would be as if it had never really happened. It was the natural order of things since ancient times in her land. Though not from Karachi, her ancestors were here to meet Alexander, and many still showed the blue eyes and hair coloring of the Greek and Macedonian and Persian genes deposited in the wombs of women in the valley of the Indus. Babies survived, even if their fathers had their throats slit by the brothers of the women they raped. Like all invaders since, the Greeks left only the results of couplings, either voluntary or forced. But they all left eventually.

The assassin slipped on light cotton pants and pulled tight the drawstring at the waist, shrugged on a blouse and stepped into open sandals. After tying a small pouch around her waist, she slipped the sheathed blade and the rest of her effects into it, threw a black chador over her head and pulled the floor-length semicircle of fabric together in front. She fastened a dark ruband veil on her ears and over her nose, which left only her eyes exposed. She was now, to any prying male eyes, a married, conservative Muslim woman: invisible and untouchable.

Das glided into the glare of the day, breathed in the stench of the city born on superheated air, and stepped delicately through a partially open wrought-iron gate in the wall of the compound.

Across the empty street, she opened the rear door of a battered yellow and black taxi and folded herself inside. The driver had been pretending to sleep in the afternoon heat, then started the engine as soon as she left the gate. He had the old car in motion before she closed the door.

They did not speak. In seconds, the taxi pulled onto a main street, trailed by a cloud of blue smoke. Their first destination was a small, poor-looking mosque, tucked in a side street nearby. She would slip a coded message through a slot in the door, word that the mission was compete. Payment would appear in one of several numbered bank accounts in Switzerland. Then she would pack a small bag and board a flight to London, and from there on to America for her next assignment.

Belching a cloud of fumes, the car soon blended in with dozens of others just like it, with trucks and cars and scooters in the vast honking chaos of the city of 15 million. In seconds, it was lost in the crowded, churning haze.